Sculpture of St Wilgefortis

This is a medieval Flemish carving, dated c. 1520, of St.Wilgefortis, sometimes known as St Uncumber. She was the daughter of the pagan King of Portugal. St. Wilgefortis was a newly converted Christian who promised to serve God as a virgin. The King chose the King of Sicily as a husband for her and to safeguard her pledge of virginity, she prayed to be released from the contract. Her prayers were answered by a beard that grew on her face overnight. The beard made her so ugly that no one would marry her. In frustration and fury, her father ordered her crucifixion.

This sculpture is part of Captain John Jones Museum collection, together with four other Flemish sculptures. Captain John Jones (1798 – 1876) was a successful Liverpool master mariner who collected objects from all around the world, and set up his own museum in Bangor in 1848 located on the High Street, at the bottom of Lon Pobty. In 1870, the museum was given to the City of Bangor and in 1909 it moved to newly built rooms behind the new library in Ffordd Gwynedd. In 1940 the Museum received some items of what was left of the Bangor City collection.

The majority of the carvings are thought to date from c.1450 – c.1550. The carvings were probably created in the Flemish-speaking areas of the Low Countries. After the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century many churches were stripped of works of art and ornate carvings. A market developed for these throughout Europe.

It is unclear as to how the story of ‘bearded saints’ began – the story cannot be traced earlier than the 15th century. One theory is that the saint became a lady through iconographical error – that wood carvers were confused by the beard and long robes in which a crucified Christ was portrayed and that it was through coincidence that these figures became partly male, partly female. Despite condemnation of the legend of this female saint within the Catholic Church, images of St.Wilgefortis were made throughout the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries and were deliberately ambiguous.

She was a popular saint, especially with women in unhappy marriages. Although St.Wilgefortis was decanonised in 1969, the saint still has a strong cult like following among movements who see her image as a way of raising debates about gender roles and sexual identity.

The sculpture is on display in Gallery 5.